It’s a Family Affair: “Days of Atonement” Is an Emotional Roller Coaster

 

DOA_Ramona Alexander, Dana Stern and Jackie Davis

(L-R): Ramona Alexander,as Fanny, Dana Stern, as Amira, and Jackie Davis, as Malka,​ and Dana Stern (behind as Amira) reunite at last in “Days of Atonement.” (Courtesy Paul Marotta/Israeli Sta​ge)​

 

By Shelley A. Sackett, Journal Correspondent

 

“Days of Atonement”, Mizrachi (Arab-Jewish) Israeli playwright Hanna Azoulay Hasfari’s lean, emotionally-charged drama, explores the thorny and complex landscape of family dynamics against the backdrop of preparing for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when only after woman has sought forgiveness from her fellow woman is she permitted to seek forgiveness from God.

 

In this case, the women who will atone and repent are three half-Moroccan, half-Israeli sisters who return to their childhood home in the Israeli city of Netivot — established by Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants in the 1950s —after their youngest sister Amira (Dana Stern) summons them to help locate their mother, who has disappeared. Estranged for decades, their reconnection will be fraught with friction.

 

The four Ohana sisters are a pallette of religious, ethnic and generational identities. The only Sabra, Amira is in her early 20s and attends film school in Tel Aviv. She sashays about in the stifling summer heat in spandex underwear, to the shock of older sister Evelyn, 44, (Adrianne Krstansky), who in turn is ultra-Orthodox from her dress to her life-threatening ninth pregnancy.

 

Fanny (Ramona Lisa Alexander), late 30s, is an assimilated, feisty, successful realtor whose teenage pregnancy got her thrown out of the house. The oldest, Malka (Jackie Davis) is a miserable busybody homemaker who was forced into an arranged marriage after Fanny shamed the family name.

 

Amira suffers panic attacks and is in danger of flunking out of school. Evelyn’s identity is so wrapped up in motherhood that she refuses the abortion that may save her life. Fanny tries to fill the hole left by the son she gave up for adoption by buying a Vietnamese baby and Malka obsesses over her husband’s imagined infidelities, mirroring their mother’s toxic behavior towards their father.

 

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​Jackie Davis, ​left ​as Malka, and Dana Stern, as Amira. share a quiet, calm moment. (Courtesy Paul Marotta/Israeli Sta​ge)

 

If it’s hard to believe they grew up under the same roof with the same parents, that is precisely the point Azoulay Hasfari is trying to make. Driving it home with a reunion triggered by a search for the mother each experienced through different multi-cultural lenses makes for brilliant theater.

 

Over the course of the day, the four sisters take turns laying bare their souls. “It’s Yom Kippur. No time for games,” Malka says without a hint of irony. As they inventory their transgressions and expose the hidden pain they silently cope with, the sisters ride an emotional roller coaster, lurching from hostility to love, from shame to humor.

 

We hear four sides to every childhood event, all (except Amira’s) also stories of immigrants and the hardships they faced as outsiders. Ultimately, though, politics are irrelevant to the sisters’ universal story of family and the female perspective.

 

The production is theater at its finest. Guy Ben-Aharon’s direction is minimalist; he wisely lets Azoulay Hasfari’s crisp script carry the load. Even props are token: all except three benches and a camcorder are mimed. The acting across the board is stellar, each sister unique, consistent and believable.

 

Highly recommended.

 

“Days of Atonement” is at the Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street through June 25. For more information or to buy tickets, visit israelistage.com/

Scottsboro: Where Boys Will Be Good Ole Boys

“Scottsboro Boys” at the SpeakEasy Theatre: a Review

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

 

There is a tipping point moment about an hour into the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s sparkling and disturbing vaudeville-style musical, “The Scottsboro Boys”.

 

Wade Wright, attorney for the Prosecution, gives his summation at the second trial of the Scottsboro Nine, as the nine African-American boys and men falsely accused of raping two white women on an Alabama train in 1931 became known. Their accuser has just recanted her entire testimony in open court. Samuel Leibowitz, a white Jewish New York criminal lawyer, is their defense attorney.

 

Wright decides to tap into another form of bigotry to win his now baseless case. “Is justice in this case going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?” he sings to the all white jury in a song based on actual court transcripts.

 

The white jurors find the nine guilty and it takes two decades of re-trials and appeals (including two to the U.S. Supreme Court which resulted in landmark civil rights rulings) to reverse that injustice. Those cases exposed the dark underbelly of this nation’s racism and the continuing challenge of reeling in the deep South and its ingrained ways, even half a century after the end of the Civil War.

 

Most songwriters wouldn’t look to Jim Crow-era Alabama and this shocking incident for the subject matter of a musical. But John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, whose resume includes the prickly blockbusters “Cabaret”, “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” and “Chicago”, have never looked to the usual suspects for inspiration. They have relished the edgy and subversive, and the opportunity to expose one of American history’s most shameful episodes of racial injustice was just their cup of tea.

 

Creating an entertaining show from such weighty raw material was a challenge. In an unconventional and daring move, they decided to tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys as a play within a play. The audience is to pretend they are attending an old-time minstrel show. The subject of that show is the Scottsboro nine.

 

The conceit miraculously works. The play’s characters appear as Stepin Fetchit archetypes, cartoonish characters that are arm’s length enough to give the audience moral breathing room to laugh at the blustering sheriffs, duplicitous damsels and singing and dancing inmates. Simultaneously, discomfort hits, and the same audience cringes at the racist caricatures and demeaning blackface meant to debase blacks and sentimentalize slavery. It takes a little while, but eventually the message sinks in: the same people who made black anguish and white injustice the heart and soul of America’s most popular form of entertainment also created a world with the kind of unwritten law that the Scottsboro jury upheld.

 

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Members of “The Scottsboro Boys” cast in “Shout”.

 

At slightly under two intermission-less hours, the production showcases a zesty score of dark, barbed lyrics and ragtime-infused music. The opening number, “Hey, Hey, Hey”, introduces us to the characters and acts as a primer about how minstrel shows work (which is a good thing, since most 21st century theatergoers are unfamiliar with the 150-year-old format). The audience is told to expect song, dance and comic sketches, and that’s exactly what they get, complete with tambourines and white-gloved open palmed hand flapping. The musical numbers pay homage to Dixie Depression-era style with a perfect blend of reeds, trombone, guitar and drums. Somewhere, Al Jolson’s spirit is smiling.

 

Director Paul Daigneault and choreographer Ilyse Robbins make the most of the compact stage, using the aisles and minimal set to creative advantage. Several numbers (especially “Electric Chair” and “Make Friends with the Truth”) are real showstoppers and Isaiah Reynolds is nothing short of flawless as Ruby Bates in “Never Too Late”.

 

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Brandon G. Green (left) and Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Tambo and Bones.

 

While mostly faithful to the minstrel form, “The Scottsboro Boys” departs from it in ways significant to the storytelling. The recognizable stock minstrel characters of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (usually white men in black face playing black stereotypes) are black men playing cartoonish racist white law enforcement officers and lawyers. Most importantly, the Scottsboro nine are never reduced to shtick or buffoonery. Their story is serious and their words are honest, raising the specter of lynching, fear and despair.

 

While each of the Scottsboro boys has his story and chance to shine, it is Haywood Patterson (played with grace and authority by De’lon Grant) who is the moral center of the show. He refuses to tell a lie, even when his false admission to a crime could mean his freedom. His part (and Grant’s delivery) is the show’s most lifelike, his dilemma the most universal. “Everyone believes me when I’m telling a lie, but nobody believes me when I’m telling the truth,” he laments.

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De’Lon Grant in “Shadow Play”.

 

Despite a catchy score that combines jazz, gospel and vaudeville and entertaining musical numbers that mix the comic and the monstrous, the show manages to make its critical and timely point. “You’re guilty because of the way you look,” a character is told, and the murmur in the audience brought to mind contemporary refrains of “Build A Wall!” “Black Lives Matter” and “Bad Hombre”. Perhaps things haven’t changed as much since the 1930’s as we would like to think they have.

 

The Scottsboro Boys is presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company through November 26 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavillion, Boston Center for the Arts at 527 Tremont Street. For more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit SpeakEasyStage.com.

‘Casa Valentina’ Is More Than Eye Candy

Above: Eddie Shields as Gloria, Thomas Derrah as Valentina and Robert Saoud as Bessie access their inner McGuire Sisters./ALL PHOTOS GLENN PERRY

By Shelley A. Sackett

Shelleysackett.com

With the gloom of daylight savings time and shorter, darker days looming around the bend, we should say a double “Hosanna” for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s six-week run of “Casa Valentina”, Harvey Fierstein’s Tony-nominated play that is about much  more than cross-dressing and visual gags.

“Casa Valentina” is a flawless production, from its across-the-board inspired acting and directing, to its funny and thought-provoking script. Before the house is even dark, the ukulele music and whimsical setting clue us that we are in for an enjoyable ride.

The play was inspired by a mysterious true subculture of heterosexual transvestite men who sought sanctuary in the Catskills during the 1960’s at the real-life hidden refuge, “Casa Susanna”. There, they could literally let their hair down, wearing wigs, heels, makeup and jewelry. A treasure trove of photographs discovered by a furniture dealer in a Manhattan flea market and published in a 2005 book showed the secretive world of men lounging around, playing cards and socializing — all while dressed as women.

A group of producers approached Fierstein, one of America’s first openly gay major celebrities, about writing a play based on the retreat. The author and Tony-award winning actor and playwright of “Kinky Boots”, “La Cage aux Folles” and “Torch Song Trilogy” agreed.

Metamorphosis at the Chevalier d'Eon.

Metamorphosis at the Chevalier d’Eon.

Janie Howland’s pleasing, rambling set is the 1960s Chevalier d’Eon, a homey Catskills resort of bungalows named after a French transvestite spy. The Chevalier caters to a group of “regulars”, married city-men with straight lives and straight jobs, who convene in the tranquility of the retreat to dress and behave like women. These gatherings are vacations in more ways than one; “Being a boy is my day job,” laments one. The masculine pronoun is banished from conversation, the booze flows freely and the Oscar Wilde quotes are darts that never miss the bull’s eye.

Thomas Derrah as George/Valentina and Kerry A. Dowling as Rita share a tender marital moment.

Thomas Derrah as George/Valentina and Kerry A. Dowling as Rita share a tender marital moment.

The wife and husband proprietors, Rita and George (also known as Valentina), are equally devoted to providing a safe place where transvestites have the freedom to explore their feminine sides and enjoy the camaraderie and fun of their soul sisters. Rita, played by Kerry A. Dowling with warmth, substance and a lot of heart, is a wig stylist who met George when he brought his sad, straggly wig into her shop for repair. She loves the “girls” and is almost saintly in her support for her husband. [Thomas Derrah, as Valentina/George, is superb].

Jonathan, a masculine, shy and bookish thirty-something, is a first time guest at the Chevalier; in fact, it is his first time ever dressing as a woman in public. Rita takes him under her maternal wing and his transformation from nervous, cautious Jonathan to ebullient and prom-ready Miranda is heartwarming. It is also a hoot, with wigs, falsies and industrial strength foundations for face and fanny.

Thomas Derrah as Valentina (right) does a makeover on Greg Maraio, transforming him from Jonathan into Miranda.

Thomas Derrah as Valentina (right) does a makeover on Greg Maraio, transforming him from Jonathan into Miranda as Will McGarrahan (Charlotte) looks on.

Each guest is unique and yet similar. Bessie, played with sass and verve by Robert Saoud, only appears in drag. She is the Oscar Wilde-spewing quick-witted Ethel Merman wannabe. As Albert, he is a decorated war veteran who has three kids and a wife able to ignore him.

Gloria, played by the breathtakingly beautiful Eddie Shields, is the most sexually charged and self-confident of the bunch, slinking around and miraculously not breaking an ankle in those stilettos. Terry, a frumpy maiden aunt type, couldn’t be more opposite.

But it is Timothy Crowe as Amy, the alter ego of The Judge, a distinguished and politically powerful man, who personifies the inner conflict suffered by those who must live secret lives. Crowe masterfully lets the Judge’s underlying sadness and fear poke its head above the surface of Amy’s wit and conviviality.

Most of the girls have known each other for decades, and their affectionate and easy chatter and jibes are fun and funny. The lip sync to the McGuire Sisters in a makeshift cabaret reminiscent of talent night at summer camp is worth the price of admission.

All, however, is not worry-free in Paradise.

Valentina has been summoned to the local postal inspector to answer for some suspicious mail, which could have dire consequences for all of the girls, but especially for George. The Chevalier is facing equally life-threatening financial problems. Only Rita is aware of these troubles.

Enter into this olio of eccentrics the Californian Charlotte, a Chanel-clad button-down, buttoned-up disciplinarian reminiscent of George C. Scott as Patton. Charlotte publishes a magazine and oversees an organization devoted to the rights of cross-dressers, as long as they’re the “right sort” of cross-dressers; that is, as long as they are not homosexuals. Valentina has naively pinned her hope on securing a loan form Charlotte, but the price she demands proves too steep and threatens to tear the Chevalier apart in a far nastier, bloodier battle than would ever take place in bankruptcy court.

Charlotte’s silver lining is that she is the spark that spurs serious discussion about serious issues. In this age of gender diversity, “Transparent” and the newest reality show, “Caitlyn Jenner”, how one identifies ones self matters both more and less. The lines between gender and identity, sexuality and gender identification, and what is “acceptable” and what is not have never been more blurred. With the explosion in labels comes an explosion in opportunities to marginalize and be marginalized. Perhaps the most powerful message “Casa Valentina” offers is that the discriminated against can themselves be the heartless discriminators.

“Casa Valentina” is a romp and a good time, but it much more than that. It shines an unblinking spotlight on the underbelly in all of us, and dares us to ask ourselves a simple question: What is “normal”?

Recommend is too tame a word for “Casa Valentina”. If you miss its run, you will be sorry.

“Casa Valentina” will run until November 28, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.

For tickets or more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit SpeakEasyStage.com.

It’s Blue Collar versus Blue Blood in “Gloucester Blue”

By Shelley A. Sackett

Latham (Robert Walsh) closes in on Lexi (Esme Allen).
All photos by Gary Ng

If the purpose of theater is to entertain, Israel Horovitz has hit the nail squarely on the head in Gloucester Stage’s New England premiere of his latest Gloucester-based play, “Gloucester Blue”. The founding artistic director of Gloucester Stage, who directs this production, introduced his new play last Saturday evening to a packed house that greeted him with affection and applause.

“Let’s see how you feel after the play,” he said, chuckling.

The internationally honored and acclaimed playwright need not have worried. His black comedy with more twists and turns than Route 127 left the audience cheering amid thunderous clapping.

Latham and Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) get to know each other.

Latham and Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) get to know each other.

In a nutshell, a young super wealthy couple (Lexi Carrington and Bradford Ellis IV, aka “Bummy”) is restoring an abandoned former fishing cannery in Gloucester’s Fort area as their summer home and display space for their collection of antique cars. They hire local housepainter, Stumpy, to do the renovation. He in turn hires a friend-of-a-friend, Latham, when the couple wants the house in move-in condition earlier than they originally planned. Both workmen are from solid blue-collar backgrounds and grew up in the working waterfront neighborhood of Eastern Point.

The play opens with Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) and Latham (the electrifying Robert Walsh, whose performance is worth the price of admission) in the drop cloth-draped attic loft where they get to know each other as they plaster and spackle. Although they are kindred souls geographically, their spirits are anything but.

Stumpy favors National Public Radio and Latham, at least ten years his senior, is an Aerosmith devotee. In one of dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, Latham says, “NPR can make ice cream sound depressing.” First impressions prove deceiving throughout “Gloucester Blue”, and Latham’s unrefined patter belies a keen sense of observation and a razor sharp sense of self-preservation.

Stumpy and Lexi brazenly flirt in front of the dumbfounded Latham.

Stumpy and Lexi brazenly flirt in front of the dumbfounded Latham.

The boisterous banter changes the instant Lexi (played by Esme Allen with a perfect, nasal Brahmin clenched jaw) shows up with paint samples. She is a knockout blond patrician clad head to heel in clothes that cost more than Latham and Stumpy’s week’s paychecks combined. From the get go, it is clear there is more than an employer-employee between her and Stumpy.

As Lexi complains to Stumpy about being sexually harassed earlier in the week, Latham relishes insulting Lexi as he mocks Stumpy. “I remember when harass was two words,” he says, clearly enjoying watching them squirm. Stumpy and Lexi get the upper hand when they ignore Latham and dash into the bedroom to “discuss renovation details.”

Latham continues to work, doing a slow burn that glows hotter with each passing minute. When Lexi’s husband, Bummy (played as a defeatist milquetoast by Lewis D. Wheeler) arrives, you can almost smell Latham’s scheming brain start to work overtime.

In addition to adultery, the noir-ish play brings in humor, a choreographed fight, blackmail, murder and betrayal. The plot coils and curls as secrets are spilled and transformed into lies and mayhem.

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Bummy (Lewis D. Wheeler) gets a pointer from Latham.

The first half of the first act drags a bit as Stumpy and Latham establish their characters and stake their ground. Part of the problem is Solorzano’s flat and un-nuanced performance as Stumpy. Fortunately, Walsh is up to the task of taking up the slack. He brings physicality, impeccable timing and a believable delivery to Latham. Likewise, the choreographed fight between the two Gloucester workmen overstays its welcome.

Act two is another story, meandering into ridiculous plot twists and comedic staging. At times, it feels like we have wandered into a completely different play, one that resembles “Fractured Fairy Tales” form the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” more than a philosophical observation of class warfare between the 99- and 1-percenters.

“Gloucester Blue” is full of introspection, clever dialogue and inventive story lines. Most importantly, however, it is exceptionally entertaining. No doubt, its run in its home town will be as rousting a success as its previous runs in theaters in New York, Washington and Florida.

 

“Gloucester Blue” runs through October 3 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester, Wednesday through Sunday. Following the 2 p.m. performances Sunday, Sept. 20 and 27, audiences are invited to free post show discussions with the artists. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.

 

Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass” Launches New Rep Theatre’s 2015-2016 Season

L-R: Anne Gottlieb and Jeremiah Kissel

All photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

New Rep Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jim Petosa, chose Arthur Miller’s infrequently produced “Broken Glass” to open the 2015-2016 season. “The resounding authenticity of playwright Arthur Miller’s voice has left an indelible legacy on the American stage,” Petosa said. “We are proud to bring this Boston are premiere to our stage during the nationwide celebration of his 100th birthday,”

“Identity” is the theme of this year’s season, and “Broken Glass” certainly fits the bill.

Written in 1994,  Miller wrote this play 40-50 years after he had penned his best known and greatest plays (the American classics “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” “An Enemy of the People,” “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge”). During these later years, Miller began exploring his own Jewishness and what it means to be a Jew. His search resounds loud and clear in “Broken Glass.”

The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1938, the day after Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”), one of the events in the run-up to World War II, in which windows in Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed. The title may also refer to the traditional breaking of a glass at Jewish weddings.

Sylvia Gellburg (played with clarity and wit by Anne Gottlieb) is obsessed with the plight of her fellow Jews in Europe and distraught by the fact that those around her can’t see the writing on the wall. She pores over the newspaper, returning again and again to the humiliation of a photo of two elderly bearded Jews forced to scour the sidewalk with toothbrushes. She fears that such brutality will somehow reach Brooklyn.

Her feelings of helplessness so overwhelm her that she suffers the actual physical helplessness of paralysis. “Somebody has to do something, or they will murder us all,” she wails.

Her gloomy, hot-blooded husband, mortgage banker Phillip (played with staccato nervous energy by the stellar and popular Jeremiah Kissel) insists she see their physician and friend, Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett). After running a series of tests and referring Sylvia to a specialist, he concludes that Sylvia’s ailment appears to be psychosomatic. He likens her condition to soldiers who are so frightened they suffer shell shock.

L-R: Benjamin Evett and Eve Passeltiner

L-R: Benjamin Evett and Eve Passeltiner

Unlike Sylvia, Phillip is not at peace with his identity. He spends as much time trying to assimilate and shed his Jewish identity as he does bristling at imagined anti-Semitic remarks, caught in that no man’s land of identifying as a Jew and wanting to be anything else. Nonetheless, he isn’t so sure that Sylvia’s reaction to the horrors of Germany isn’t spot-on.

“What if Sylvia is the only one who is awake and her reaction makes sense and if the rest of us were aware of what she is, we’d be paralyzed too?” he asks Dr. Hyman. The doctor, who is Jewish but married to the bubbly non-Jewish Margaret (Eve Passeltiner), is convinced that all the political turmoil will pass. In his estimation, Sylvia’s problem boils down to the fact that she is desperate to be loved.

Against this backdrop of unhappiness, fear and repression, the Gellburg’s marital disintegration soon takes center stage as Sylvia and Phillip verbally spar with the intimate accuracy of two people well versed in each other’s Achilles’ heels. Sylvia, who reluctantly gave up her career for motherhood and Manhattan, resents and regrets ever leaving Brooklyn. “I can’t seem to find myself in my life,” she says. Phillip echoes her disappointment: “I always thought I would have time to get to the bottom of me,” he says. These are two strangers in the strange land of their marriage.

While the cast is superb and the set inventive and effective, the play’s strident tone and length (two-and-a-half hours) eventually wears down even the most ardent theatergoer. “Broken Glass” is a tough slog. Unlike Willy Loman and the characters in Miller’s deservedly more famous plays, these characters are two-dimensional and that two-dimensionality keeps us at arm’s length, sadly making it impossible for us to feel the compassion they so crave.

Through September 27 at the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $30-$65. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.

Jim Petosa: Up Close and Personal

Even over the phone, Jim Petosa’s enthusiasm is contagious. The New Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director since 2012 (he just “re-enlisted” with a second three-year contract) is excited to talk about the New Rep’s upcoming 2015-2016 season and its opening play, Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass”, which Petosa will direct.

“I’m really happy,” he said, adding, “It’s been great. I’m beginning my fourth year and am feeling my lengthening relationship with the theater.”

Petosa likes to draw an analogy between the way songs relate to each other on a concept LP and the way the artistic notion of a theater company can emerge through individual plays that relate to each other to create a larger mosaic of artistry. For the upcoming season, Petosa chose “Identity” as the “title of the LP” and selected plays that focus on characters who must discover who they are in the contexts in which they find themselves.

“Broken Glass” will to kick off the season both as part of the national celebration of the playwright’s birth and as a way to showcase a play Petosa fell in love with when he first directed it in 1996 while artistic director at Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center for the Arts.

“This is a late play of Miller’s, and I find that as he got older, he became more revelatory and personal in his writing,” Petosa said. “There is an intimacy and an honesty that seems to come more directly out of our own humanity in a very revealing way.”

The Olivier Award-winning and Tony-nominated drama takes place on November 11, 1938, the day after “Kristallnacht” (literally, “Night of Crystal,” referring to the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place on November 9 and 10,1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia recently occupied by German troops).

Sylvia Gellburg has suddenly lost the ability to walk and her husband, Phillip, desperately seeks a cure. The play ostensibly examines the Gellburgs’ failed marriage, but in the process it also uncovers the inner conflicts of those straddling the worlds of their immigrant parents’ Jewish values and the modern American ideal of assimilation and material success.

“This play speaks to the theme of ‘identity’ so perfectly, but you really have to have a terrific company that’s perfect for the play. You can’t just do it with anybody. It has to be someone who connects to it in a visceral way” said Petosa.

When he got to know Jeremiah Kissel’s work in New Rep’s 2014 production of “Imagining Madoff” (see review at https://shelleysackett.com/2014/01/16/bernie-madoff-jewish-rogue-or-rogue-jew/), he had his Phillip. “Jerry was just born to play this role and I knew Anne Gottlieb would be splendid as Sylvia,” he said.

Also, “Broken Glass” had never been performed in Boston. “We thought, ‘If we’re going to do an Arthur Miller centennial piece, let’s do an area premiere,’ and that became very exciting,” Petosa added.

Wearing his director’s hat, Petosa reflected about which character most resonated with him. “For me, the central character is the marriage,” he said, noting that the Phillip-Sylvia relationship is the most compelling human aspect of the play. “How the other characters impact on the demise of that relationship is the engine of the play.”

Petosa delights in telling about his experience with Mr. Miller when he directed the play in 1996. “This is a great story,” he begins. “I’m always amazed by the times you have in the theatrical world where you get to touch people of significance or real artistic magnitude and by just how generous oft times those people are.”

Mr. Miller was living in Connecticut in 1996. He offered to make himself available everyday after 5 p.m. (he wrote every afternoon until that time) throughout the rehearsal phase. Petosa took him up on his offer many times.

“He sent a telegram on opening night in the old theatrical tradition and spoke so tenderly about what he called ‘the little play.’ You could just feel the affection he had for the characters and the play.

“That has become the experience that defines Arthur Miller for me. It just speaks volumes about the man.” Petosa said.

“Broken Glass” also resonates with Petosa in a personal way, with a message he hopes the audience will take away. For him, the play is about “the whole question of the tragedy of the common man and the potency of self-destruction, of not being comfortable in one’s own skin and of feeling a sense of one’s victimization, of ‘lost-ness’…,” he said, pausing.

He continued, “… and to fight against that and not be brought down because of a sense of not belonging in some main stream sense of power structure. I think it’s a hugely cautionary tale and one that makes you feel a sense of grief.”

As he begins his fourth season at New Rep Theatre’s artistic helm, Petosa is humble about taking credit for the company’s soaring popularity during his tenure. “We really are trying hard to bring interesting things to our stage,” he said.

Lost in Place, Stuck in Time

Pictured above: Clara (Marya Lowry) puts the finishing touches on Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) as Ada (Adrianne Krstansky) lends support. (Photo credit: Gary Ng)

“By their nature people are talkers,” declares Breda, one of three sisters who live their cloistered lives behind the closed door of a cottage on the rugged Irish seacoast. But for Breda and her sister Clara, who have withdrawn from the world and lassoed their younger sister, Ada, into joining them, talking is more than an innate trait: it is also the glue that fixes them to each other and to a shared adolescent moment forty years ago that was so painful and humiliating, it literally stopped their developmental clock.

In Gloucester Stage’s splendid production of Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s “The New Electric Ballroom,” playing through August 15, director Robert Walsh (no relation) casts a believable, macabre spell over a cramped room where memory reigns and lives are unlived.

Breda, played with her usual spot-on gestures and intonation by the stellar Nancy E. Carroll, was the village “bad girl” in her youth. When a teen idol singer came to the local1950’s dance hall, the New Electric Ballroom, she, along with all the other young girls trapped in the fishing village, dreamed of escaping their dismal fate by latching onto his coattails. Her younger and more innocent sister Clara (an equally convincing Marya Lowry) fell under the same spell. The two, however, did more than just dream; they acted.

Both went to his dressing room after the performance, believing his sweet talk and promises. Both suffered unspeakable grief and mortification when they were rejected. However, rather than picking themselves up and carrying on, something in them snapped, tethering them to that moment for the rest of their lives.

Now in their sixties, the sisters spend their day as they have everyday for the last forty years: by reenacting every anguished moment of that encounter. Their younger sister, Ada (Adrianne Krstansky, heartbreakingly understated), who is in her forties and works at the local fish-packing plant, is stage manager and costume and sound designer for their play within a play.

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Above: Clara (Marya Lowry) and Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) square off over tea time. (Photo Credit:  Gary Ng)

Each day, Breda and Clara ceremonially don the clothes and make up they wore that fateful night in a ghoulish reminder of Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” In what feels like a cross between the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and a sadistic sacred sacrament, they take turns describing in painful detail the events of that night and then relive the shame and disappointment that followed. They exist in a snow globe, hermetically sealed in a blizzard of debilitating emotion. When Breda declares to the exhausted Clara, “It’s time for you to rest and then we’ll start over,” all hope for a different path leeches away.

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At right: L to R: Patsy (Derry Woodhouse) the fishmonger makes a point with Ada (Adrianne Krstansky) as Clara (Marya Lowry) and Breda (Nancy E. Carroll) look on. (Photo credit: Gary Ng)

Patsy (Derry Woodhouse), a fishmonger and the only visitor the sisters have, is a pivotal character in the play, coming to the sisters out of loneliness and a yearning to connect to another human being, however flawed and weird. “In a town of this size, we all have our place and mine was to have no purpose,” he states matter-of-factly. He is both endearing and pathetic as he withstands Breda’s abuse on the faintest possibility that she might invite him in.

When she and Clara finally do just that, the audience and Ada eagerly await Ada’s release from her sisters’ weird spell. This reviewer will not risk being branded a “spoiler” by revealing what happens, but the crucial moments showcase Mr. Woodhouse’s acting chops and bond the four characters in a surprising and indelible way.

The play is not as dreary as it might sound. The strong cast ably keeps the play grounded, despite its tendency to drift into farce and allegory. Under Robert Walsh’s direction and with Jenna McFarland Lord’s economical yet complete set, the characters are alive despite their suspension in time. And once again, Gloucester Stage rises above its summer theater peers, staging the sponge bath scene with real soap and water (and a nearly naked Patsy).

Enda Walsh has penned a smart, funny and lyrical work that subtly reveals its deeper message in a way that lingers and intensifies long after the curtain has come down. Highly stylized, the language at times evokes a dream world, where reality and fantasy merge.

Walsh, who authored the musical Once, garnered the OBIE Playwriting Award, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award and the Irish Times Best New Play Award for “The New Electric Ballroom.” With its New England premiere, the Gloucester Stage celebrates yet another home run in its superlative 36th season.

 

“The New Electric Ballroom” runs through August 15 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester, Wednesday through Sunday. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.

Gloucester Stage Company Hits It Out of the Park with “Out of Sterno”

Gloucester Stage Company is on a roll this summer. On the heels of its stunning “Sweet and Sad,” the North Shore venue offers up “Out of Sterno,” a dazzling production about female empowerment that is impossible not to like. This is one you will not want to miss.

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play features Dotty, a 23-year-old who has spent the last seven years of marriage sequestered in her apartment, occupying her days in ways that would make Pee Wee Herman feel right at home. Dotty’s “playhouse” includes toys, gadgets and puppet characters (although her appliances and furniture don’t talk, which is too bad since Dotty believes everything she is told, and even a chair would have better advice to offer than her mother’s).

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Amanda Collins as Dotty replays the first time she met her husband.

She has a crafts table where she constructs kindergarten art projects based on domesticity and a VCR where she watches re-enactments of her first meeting with Hamel, her perfect husband who has forbidden her to leave the apartment or answer the phone. The rest of her day is spent doing laundry and preparing the same dinner for Hamel — a smiley-faced hamburger. Although this is Sterno, not Puppetland, Dotty and Pee Wee are two peas in an infantile pod, their exaggerated cheer at times bordering on hysteria.

Dotty’s hermetic world is unsealed the day she receives a mysterious phone call and finds a nude girlie picture in Hamel’s grease monkey overalls. Her ordered world is suddenly topsy-turvey. She decides to disobey Hamel and track down the truth.

Once she leaves her apartment, our modern-day Dorothy discovers she is not in Kansas anymore. “Life was so much simpler when I never left the apartment,” she rues.

Her yellow brick road leads her first to Zena (a force to be reckoned with as played by Jennifer Ellis), the she-devil beautician who gives Dotty a primer in what womanhood can look like. The textbook is “Beautiful or Bust” magazine and the uniform includes false boobs, a wig and stilettos guaranteed to lead to debilitating foot problems. It also includes tutelage in Zena’s tried-and-true method to make it as a woman in a man’s world: steal another woman’s husband.
By way of illustration, Zena tells Dotty she has sunk her razor-sharp claws into potential husband number six. Before Dotty realizes that it is her own Hamel whom Zena is prattling on and on about snatching, she too falls under Zena’s foul-mouthed spell, finding womanly self-worth and identity by wearing Zena’s animal print jumpsuits and scrubbing her salon’s toilets with a toothbrush.

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Amanda Collins (Dotty) finds female fulfillment scrubbing Zena’s toilets with a toothbrush.

Dotty meets many characters no less colorful than Conky, Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne while on her quest for the meaning of womanhood. Richard Snee plays each of these cameo roles with relish and panache. These include a cabbie, a professor, other beauty shop clients, and Dotty’s new “bus buddies” — a militant feminist, a pregnant Southern lady and a geeky salesman.

Each offers her a manifesto, a code of ethics and a dress code. Like the blind men feeling the elephant in the Indian parable, each has his or her narrow, subjective perspective based on a single experience that fails to account for other possible truths or for a totality of truth.

Photo_16_8754Little by little, Dotty starts to realize that, while each of these guides can help her learn something about herself, only she holds the key that can unlock the mystery of her authentic self.

The extraordinary Amanda Collins as Dotty is reason enough to see the show. She effortlessly brings to the role an openness of curiosity and naïvité (think the un-raunchy elements of Lena Dunham); a slapstick wacky physicality (think Lucille Ball) and an exceptionally expressive face (think pre-plastic surgery Meg Ryan). Her delivery is flawless and she radiates an inner light that draws the audience’s attention like a moth to a flame.

Paula Plum’s direction is full of surprises, such as props falling from the ceiling, and jaw-dropping brilliance, such as the staging of the final scene. The music has the breeziness of “The Pink Panther” and “Mad Men” and the set designs make creative use of overhead projectors, billowing curtains and backlit shadows.

“Out of Sterno” is particularly relevant in the wake of such “news” as Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover that shows her authentic female self. As Plum notes in the playbill, “I found it intriguing that Jenner displayed herself through the lens of Beauty Culture: corseted, provocative and heavily made-up. The transformation of this former Olympic athlete to femme fatale poses the question: what makes a ‘real woman’? Is it the sum of our exterior parts?”

Sounds like Jenner should make a trip to Gloucester; Dotty could teach her a thing or two.

Pictured at top: Jennifer Ellis (as Zena), Richard Snee (as beauty shop patron) and Amanda Collins (as Dotty)

“Out of Sterno” runs through July 18 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.

The Girls Are Dreamin’ in Beverly

Eric LaJuan Summers steals the show as James “Thunder” Early in NSMT’s production of “Dreamgirls.”
PhotoPaul
Lyden

Attending the season opener at the North Shore Music Theatre brings back memories of stepping off the bus on the first day of summer camp. Like the joy of reconnecting with old friends and places, the NSMT’s round stage with its magic trapdoor center pit, its live orchestra and its signature disco-esque spinning light signal that, finally, summer is here.

And with its exuberant production of “Dreamgirls”,the winner of six Tony and two Grammy Awards, NSMT throws quite the summer party. There’s even dancin’ in the streets.

Inspired by the career of Diana Ross and The Supremes, the musical follows the onstage and backstage drama of the 1960s up-and-coming female trio, “The Dreams.” From their career-launching talent contest at New York City’s famed Apollo Theatre to their farewell concert over a decade later, there are the usual love triangles, artistic squabbles and managerial double-crossings.

There are also a soulful score, slick choreography and the performances of Bryonha Marie Parham as Effie and Eric LaJuan Summers as James “Thunder” Early that make “Dreamgirls” anything but the usual summer musical fare.

Parham and Summers are hands down the standouts in the strong 22-member cast. In Effie, Parham has a vehicle to unleash her powerful voice, and what a set of pipes she has. Her “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” deservedly brought down the house. Summers likewise packs a wallop as the showboat Early, playing him with a blend of James Brown athleticism, Stevie Wonder crooning and Little Richard flamboyance. Not since J. Cameron Barnett tore up the stage last summer as Sebastian the crab in “The Little Mermaid” has the NSMT hosted such an electrifying performer.

Like most NSMT productions, “Dreamgirls” is a little long at two-and-a-half hours (which includes a 20-minute intermission), but in this age of shrinking values and increasing costs, that seems a pretty silly thing to complain about.

“Dreamgirls” plays through June 14. For tickets and more information, visit nsmt.org or call 978-232-7200.

Summer Stages Beckon

 Even on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, there is something summery about the opening day of the summer theater season. The North Shore is blessed with two stellar companies, Gloucester Stage and Beverly’s North Shore Music Theatre, that have offered theatergoers the chance to see professional productions without having to traipse into Boston for a combined 97 years.

Under the skillful direction of Weylin Symes, Gloucester Stage, in collaboration with Stoneham Theatre, opens its season with “Sweet and Sad”. The production introduces us to the five members of the fictional Apple family, who are at the center of four plays by American playwright Richard Nelson. “Sweet and Sad” is the second in the chronological series. All are set in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and all focus on either an election or a significant historical anniversary.

In “Sweet and Sad”, the Apple family assembles uncomfortably on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (the New York Public Theater opening night was actually September 11, 2011). Although the family members — siblings Marian, Barbara, Jane and Richard, and their Uncle Benjamin — spend less time talking about the events of 9/11 than their own personal histories, the significance of the day officially devoted to loss and remembrance casts an indelible shadow.

Even though Barbara (Karen MacDonald whose nuanced performance brings to mind Diane Wiest at her finest), a schoolteacher whose Rhinebeck home hosts the family brunch, early on states that the day is not one to talk politics, the reason for the gathering is to attend a commemoration her students will perform that evening. Uncle Benjamin, who moved in with caretaker Barbara after his brilliant acting career was cut short by a heart attack that left him amnesiac, will read Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser”.

Marian, also a teacher, has just moved in with Barbara, seeking refuge from a recent separation from her husband. Manhattanites Richard, a Wall Street lawyer, and Jane, a writer, round out the family. Tim, Jane’s sometimes boyfriend and an actor currently relegated to waiting tables, walks the fine line between blending in and being unobtrusive.

It’s hard to know where to start praising this production.

The lights rise on a large set that makes good use of the entire stage and yet also creates an intimate dining room setting for the family to share a late lunch and squabble. Each actor embodies his role with a stunning naturalism, breathing life and depth into his role. The same cast staged the first of the four-part Apple family plays, “Hopey Changey,” earlier at Stoneham Theater, and their obvious comfort with each other is the stuff stellar ensemble acting is all about. They are so physically at ease that the audience really does feel like it’s eavesdropping on a family reunion.

Symes, producing director at Stoneham, brings a light but quirky touch to the show, allowing the characters to explore their characters’ eccentricities and individuality without jeopardizing the cohesive fabric of their shared histories. Watching the siblings interact as adults, you can imagine what they must have been like as kids. And having the actors really eat real food (in some cases going back for seconds) is nothing short of brilliant.

Which brings us last, but hardly least, to Nelson’s script. In fewer than two intermission-less hours, he lets us through the keyhole to glimpse a family’s most perilous secrets while making us think about such broad and weighty topics as: the roles of memory and memorials; what drives young people to suicide; and the state of the nation. The characters overlap and interrupt and answer for each other with the familiarity of broken thoughts and familial patterns. We witness the passive-aggressive, judgmental and ultimately supportive Apple family dance. His dialogue (and its flawless delivery) points to as much what is not said as to what is.

The only time all the Apples manage to sit still and listen quietly is when Uncle Benjamin practices reading “The Wound-Dresser”. Whitman’s poem is a tribute to the memory of the Civil War soldiers he tended during his time as a nurse, but when we hear, “I sit by the restless all the dark night; some are so young, some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,” he could be talking about the Apple family today.

Pictured at top: Karen MacDonald (Barbara Apple) makes her sisterly point with Laura Latreille (Jane Apple Halls).

(Photo by GARY NG)

“Sweet and Sad” is at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main St. through June 20. For tickets, go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.